British Studies Web Pages
The Welsh Diary
16 July 2004
So here I am again. Heathrow Airport for the eleventh time… But this time it is just a fleeting visit, a stop on my way to Wales, somewhere I have never travelled to before. There are seven of us, seven women ready to set off on an ethnographic tour, whatever the phrase means… The first thing I saw after getting off the plane was some writing on the wall (an advertisement of a bank in fact): Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge. What a fitting comment to our little expedition…
18-19 July, 2004
The journey from London went smoothly and after 2.5 hours I saw Cardiff for the first time. After another 20 minutes we found ourselves outside the violet and yellow building of the Cardiff Backpackers. No four-poster beds, but a good location, friendly staff, well-equipped kitchen and plenty of leaflets and brochures plus a simple but delicious Indian restaurant across the street. My first impression of Cardiff was similar to the one I almost invariably have upon arriving in a new town – that of a vague abandonment, of something sinister lurking beneath the city surface. But I know these are just impressions, most likely formed after the reading of Trezza Azzopardi's The Hiding Place, a moving tale about a family, immigration, poverty and a life in 1960s Cardiff that leaves very few choices… But by daylight Cardiff appears to be a ‘down-to-earth, no-nonsense‘ city with the Castle and the Millennium Stadium dominating the center and combining what seems to be the essence of the place – a historic town enjoying its present and looking into the future.
We spent the first day walking around the city and sightseeing. I enjoyed a stroll in Bute park near the castle with wonderful flowerbeds which you so rarely see in public places in Poland. (I wonder why…). Cardiff Castle turned out to be a mixture of a Roman fort and a medieval stronghold transformed into a Victorian fantasy palace by the architect William Burges employed by John, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who by the 1860s was probably the richest man in the world. (his father turned Cardiff into the world's greatest coal exporting port).
After a nice lunch of antipasti and broccoli and stilton soup we went to see Cardiff Bay with its modern waterside architecture and the impressive Wales Millennium Centre with a huge inscription running across one of its walls: In these stones horizons sing…
20 July, 2004
Cardiff – St Fagans – Museum of Welsh Life
I have always liked open air museums, so St Fagans was on my must see list. I went, I saw, and I was not disappointed. The museum stands in beautiful countryside and the variety of things to see is quite impressive; there is a pottery, a sawmill, a tollhouse, a re-created Celtic village, a house for the future, numerous farmhouses, St Fagans Castle and a beautiful, quiet rosary (my personal favourite) with over 100 varieties of roses.
21 July 2001
Today we took another short trip out of town to Caerphilly Castle – the biggest one in Wales, a ‘massive giant’ of a castle resting calmly on a small hill among tea houses, shops and houses. It still looks impressive if a bit lonely; one of its towers leans in towards the town as if it was curious to see what lies beyond the castle walls. In the courtyard a stage had been set up, ready for a performance by a local theatre group. So there is life beyond the castle walls… After the visit to the castle we lingered over tea in the nearby café and took a bus to Llandaff Cathedral, a beautiful church literally tucked away in a green hollow, so that we had to ‘look down on it’ before entering it.
The evening was a highlight of our stay. We were invited to dinner at Nicky Thompson’s house (a friend of a friend from London). Hospitality is certainly her middle name and together with her husband she made us feel very welcome and made our short stay in Wales truly special. Do you know many people who would open their homes and hearts, light 50 candles and cook delicious food for 7 strangers? It was certainly an evening to remember and savour – just look at the list of what we had…
Leek and potato soup with Melba toast
Lamb with redcurrant/mint sauce and potatoes
Vegetarian sausages (leeks and cheese on a bed of spinach and cream)
A plate of different types of cheese and grapes and delicious wine
22 July 2004
“Travelling the world did not broaden my mind. It just made me realize what I had left behind and brought me closer to the day of knowing me, in my own way”. I found this quote on the wall in our hostel just before we set off on our journey to the north of Wales. Our destination was Bangor and Snowdon – we were hoping to hop on the small train that winds its way to the top of the mountain and see Snowdon the easy way, but the train broke down and we had to put the trip off till the next day, which turned out to be drier and sunnier.
We arrived in Caernarfon in the afternoon and went straight to Totters, a hostel in the center of the town, a five-minute walk from the impressive castle. When we got there it turned out that the owner was in the process of… preparing his own wedding party. The hostel was already full of his family but he took in the seven ladies, thus making it possible for us to spend the night in a 200 year-old house with a 600-year old breakfast and kitchen area in the basement. The rooms are pleasant, clean and tastefully decorated and the living room has plenty of books, films and comfortable sofas. It can certainly feel like a home away from home and very good value for money.
After a meal in a Chinese restaurant (a mistake) we visited the castle (how could we not?) and went for a long walk along the quiet beach. I loved the castle with its strong walls and green grass in the courtyard, narrow passages and towers. (The brochure said that it was designed to echo the walls of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome and the dream-castle. Successfully, I would say). On our way back I saw this story displayed in a restaurant window: A young Jewish boy, a member of a gang comes home, bleeding profusely, begging for help. His mother says: “First sit and eat. Then we will talk”.
23- 24 July, 2004
Snowdon – Portmeirion - Aberystwyth
The second attempt at Snowdon was successful – we bought the tickets, settled in the small train and admired half of the views on the way to the top. The other half was enveloped in fog and we only caught occasional glimpses of the slopes and ravines. The fog was quite dense when we reached the top, so we listened to the sound of the view, as somebody with a similar experience once fittingly commented. If I ever come back I will climb the mountain like all normal people do. I will be fitter and £20 richer.
The next place we visited was Portmeirion - another architectural fantasy that Wales has to offer. It was built in the 1920s by Clough Williams– Ellis to show that “the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement”. His motto was:
Cherish the past
Adorn the Present
Construct for the Future
…and my God the place is adorned. It is so sweet it seems unreal – pink and blue and yellow houses, orange roofs, a mixture of all architectural styles, winding streets, all set against the background of beautiful plants and just a short walk away from a beautiful, quiet beach. Still, it seems strangely consoling and I wouldn’t mind spending a night in one of those fantasy houses or towers.
It seems we are moving between the extremes today. From the foggy Snowdon, we went straight to a fantasy world of Portmeirion and landed in Aberystwyth, in cheap student accommodation which is so depressing that I feel like going out and sleeping on a pier jutting out into the sea. Ma³gosia has bought a comic thriller by Malcolm Pryce's - Aberystwyth Mon Amour, which tells the story of Louie Knight, the town's only private investigator, trying to find out what happened to the schoolboys vanishing without trace. My suspicion is that they stayed where we are staying and after a night in a place like that, left the town in search of better accommodation.
Having said that, however, I really liked the remains of the castle on a small hill – they were so well kept, with intensely green grass and flowerbeds among empty walls opening up to the sky.
25 July, 2004
We booked an afternoon coach, so we still had time to explore a bit more of Cardiff and went to the National Museum and Gallery, where I really enjoyed the Buried Treasure exhibition; to think that so many beautiful and delicate objects waited under the ground for the hand of a chance gardener, farmer or a beachcomber to come back to life…
After our return from Wales we had 2 days left to explore London, so we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition Off the Beaten Track – 300 years of Women Travellers. We might not have been as courageous and adventurous as all those ladies exploring Africa and the Middle East long before planes, e-tickets and credit cards, but I thought that 7 determined, contemporary women with their hearts set on discovering things on their own contributed nicely, if modestly, to that tradition, don’t you think?
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